Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Jim McClintock: Off to Palmer Research Station

Jim McClintock, our guide to the Antarctic experience has arrived at his seasonal research stay at Palmer Research Station. He sent me this blog:

The Drake Passage south of Punta Arenas, Chile embraced us – sparing us its notoriously tumultuous seas.   As an Antarctic marine ecologist from the University of Alabama at Birmingham I am on my 14th expedition to Antarctica, this time to study the effects of climate change on the rich but delicate marine life that surrounds this amazing continent the size of China and India combined.  Our ship, the Laurence Gould, leased by the U.S. National Science Foundation, was home for our three day crossing of the Drake Passage.  The fourth day brought us sight of Smith Island, the first hint that the Antarctic Peninsula looms.  Before arriving at our destination, U.S. Palmer Station, our ship and its crew of scientists, marine technicians and sailors, enjoyed a short one-day visit to Primavera, a small Argentinian base perched on a rocky granitic rise overlooking the sea and surrounded by glaciers and snow covered peaks.    Upon departing  Primavera, my research team was treated to a twenty-mile zodiac tour of the Antarctic coastline – our boats zoomed across seas with skies above as blue as blue can be, past endless glaciers, countless ice bergs designed by Dr. Zeus, and provided us with several close encounters with humpback whales.  A quintessential day in a fantastical land.

Our research at Palmer Station has begun in earnest.  My research team is comprised of myself and another professor, Chuck Amsler, two female graduate students, and a research associate.  We are here to study the ecological impacts of ocean acidification on Antarctic marine plants and animals.  Ocean acidification is a process induced by the absorption of atmospheric carbon dioxide by our world’s oceans.  Since the industrial revolution the carbon dioxide humankind has put into the atmosphere has already increased the oceans’ acidity levels.  The seas surrounding Antarctica are the canary in the coal mine when it comes to ocean acidification.  Antarctic marine organisms are inherently weakly calcified and their shells can dissolve as oceans acidify.  Moreover, the building blocks of their shells – calcite and aragonite- are predicted to become limited in their availability first and foremost in cold polar seas.  In concert with Antarctic scientists from a variety of countries around the Antarctic continent – our team will share in the international collaboration of climate change research that is providing critical insights into the impacts of ocean acidification closer to home.  In coming  blogs I will share stories about the science and others here at Palmer Station are undertaking, the brother- and sisterhood of station life, and insights into the challenges of diving in freezing seas, avoiding leopard seals, and day-to-day living in one of the most remote, yet beautiful places on our planet.

Professor James B McClintock

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Seeing Climate Change at the Fringe of Antarctica

Seeing Climate Change at the Fringe of Antarctica

When Palmer Research Station was built 47 years ago, it was situated at the tip of a massive glacier on an island close to the Antarctic peninsula. That small patch was the only place to establish the station, but it was a good place. A dry, cold climate with a breeding range providing a habitat to some 18,000 Adelie penguins, offered plenty of research opportunities.
When I visited Palmer in December 2011 on a trip to Antarctica, I did not expect anything special (relative to the amazing environment of Antarctica, obviously). But then I saw something you normally do not actually see outside of computer models and movie animations: Climate Change.
We all see how the weather changes and often make the assumption a certain weather pattern stems from climate change. However, that relationship is far from deterministic since weather changes in very different time scales than climate, which is essentially the aggregation of weather events.
Here at the fringe of Antarctica however, the effects of climate change jump right into your eyes. The glacier is now some 300m/900ft away from the station; most of the Adelie penguins that rely on sea ice left and were replaced by Gentoos ; and when we arrived, it was actually raining. Most striking to me however, was the view of one of the small islands around Palmer that was not only host to some seals, but also to green moss (see photo below)! If there was anything I really did not expect, then it was this sight of vegetation on an island surrounded by ice and freezing water.
What I expected to see down there was a fairly regular, seasoned research station. What I saw was a place where researchers have the outstanding opportunity to monitor the immediate impact of climate change by just looking outside their windows.
Antarctica is an amazingly unique place. It has been fully dedicated to science. Countries’ claims were ‘put on ice’ in an oustanding global agreement. It is an example of how humanity represented by its governments can actually agree on very big issues/
Preserving this unique environment and with it the opportunity to conduct research about the probably biggest human challenge is something that I see as a personal challenge to support.
Marketing, media and entertainment have been able to facilitate amazing things in Africa. What to some might seem like nothing else than a billboard for celebrities, actually brought a lot of attention, good will and money to one of the poorest and endangered place in the world. Sometimes it was the original interest in the continent and its people, sometimes it was just a convenient place to promote oneself. But it does not really matter, because essentially it is the outcome that counts. And the new schools, medication or nature parks are a proof its effectiveness.
Why not make Antarctica that next frontier?
One might fear with that attention more harm than good will be done. But if conducted carefully I think that risk can be mitigated. Policies - both public and private like from the IAATO, the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators - keep human activities in balance with the precious fauna and flora. The opportunities are outstanding! Let’s see which advertisers or celebrities want to embrace the challenge, associate themselves with the seventh continent and its cause and bring precious funds and attention to another place where it is urgently needed.
In the months to come I will explore ideas, projects and initiatives - collaborators welcome!